Southwest Utah offers a glimpse into what the state’s wildfire season could be
When it comes to Utah’s wildfire season, the southwest corner of the state is the canary in the coal mine.
Even though many parts of Utah remain wet from this year’s record snowpack, the region where the Mojave Desert meets the Great Basin is already hot and parched. And the Bureau of Land Management’s southwest Utah fire management specialist, Nick Howell, has seen the effects.
“We are having fires on a daily basis,” Howell said. “Things dry out really quick.”
On June 1 — the official start of Utah’s closed fire season — there were two fires just west of Cedar City, Howell said. The day before that, federal and local crews fought a 136-acre fire in Zion National Park. Earlier in May, a brush fire in the middle of St. George threatened more than 100 buildings.
Washington County emergency operations manager, Jason Bradley, said local crews are seeing a steady dose of fires in low elevation areas around St. George, especially along roadsides where a dragging trailer chain or blown out tire can quickly light up a ditch.
While it’s good news that high elevation areas might enjoy a quieter-than-average summer, Bradley said, low elevation areas are where it's even more likely for fires to put people and their homes in danger.
“The lower level fuels are going to be problematic across the state this year,” Bradley said. “We're just ahead of the group.”
Washington County is typically the first place Howell looks in the spring for fire conditions and restrictions. Its lower elevation and dry, hot weather make it a bellwether for what other parts of the state might face in the coming weeks.
And this year, he said, the winter precipitation that brought good news for drought across Utah might come back to bite us.
“The big concern is all the grass,” Howell said. “Our focus is definitely going to be in the lower elevations throughout this whole summer.”
The above-average precipitation helped grass and brush grow taller and fuller than normal. And once that vegetation dries out, it becomes extra fuel for wildfires.
That sets up for a potentially dangerous recipe this summer, he said. Since many high elevation areas are still hard to access because of the snow, more people might congregate in the lower elevation areas to camp, drive around and potentially spark a fire.
“We definitely anticipate more visitation and more recreation down into those lower elevations,” Howell said, “which is going to obviously increase human activity and possibly increase those human-caused fires.”
The June 1 outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center predicts that much of Utah’s higher elevation areas will have below-average fire potential throughout the month — thanks to that record snowpack — before returning to average conditions in July and August.
The outlook also warns of a potential uptick in fires in June across the southern Great Basin region, including southern Utah, as recent dry conditions return lower elevation areas to their average wildfire potential.
But even an average fire season for southern Utah still poses plenty of danger.
Last year, a report found that St. George is one of the most threatened places in the nation for wildfires, with more than 90% of the city’s structures at risk. And data from elsewhere in North America show that climate change may be creating more intense wildfires that burn longer and push more people from their homes.
“It seems like there is a continual fire season,” Bradley said. “It doesn't even hardly go away.”
Some easy things residents can do to make their houses less vulnerable to fire, Bradley said, include clearing dead leaves from gutters and pruning trees to keep them a few feet away from both buildings and the ground. People in Washington County can also sign up online to receive text alerts when wildfires threaten their area.
Even when southwest Utah gets monsoonal rains, Bradley said, it’s easy to see how dry and dusty conditions can become just a few days later. And getting relief from the monsoons this summer might not be a sure thing.
The NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates there’s a roughly 90% chance of El Niño developing this summer. That weather pattern is expected to delay and shorten the monsoon season that typically brings much-needed late summer moisture to southern Utah.
“If we don't see anything come to the rescue for us, meaning the moisture from the monsoon … then we'll have some issues,” Kayli Guild, a wildfire information officer with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and Lands, said. “[But] monsoonal moisture can be a double-edged sword.”
If the summer monsoon season is short, she said, that could leave enough time for vegetation to dry out again before the fire season cools down this fall. And the monsoon rains could drive another round of grass growth that eventually becomes fuel.
Utah has already seen roughly 70 wildfires statewide, Guild said. Some of those are out of our hands, caused by lightning and other natural factors. But the state is trying to clamp down on the ones that we can control.
During a particularly bad fire season in 2020, Guild said, roughly three-fourths of Utah’s wildfires were caused by people.
Since then, Utah has prioritized its Fire Sense program which aims to educate the public about avoiding common ways fires get started — everything from shooting guns to abandoning campfires to parking on dry grass.
And while the campaign can’t take all the credit, she said, Utahns seem to be getting on board. Last year, less than half of Utah’s wildfires were sparked by people.
“There's definitely been a change in human response,” Guild said, “especially when it comes to wildfires and being aware that it's everybody's responsibility.”